|Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Jun 9, 2019 12:00 PM|
Were you a little surprised just now when people suddenly started speaking different languages? You couldn’t understand most of them, could you? We do this because it’s unsettling and fascinating and neat, but here’s the thing … the Day of Pentecost wasn’t really like that.
No, the exercise we just did, with a whole bunch of people reading in a whole bunch of languages you couldn’t understand, is more like what happens in the story of the Tower of Babel. After the Flood, the people get together with big plans to rival God for authority and power, all speaking the same language of ambition and conquest. Suddenly, they find that they can’t communicate, so they scatter across the face of the earth. It’s an imaginative explanation of why we don’t all speak the same language. But it’s more than that: it’s a description of the human condition. We are scattered, and we don’t understand one another. And while God may have had a hand in bringing this about, it is not at all God’s dream for the world.
But today is the Day of Pentecost, and Pentecost is the next step in God’s plan to re-gather a scattered people and help them understand one another again.
When people just now stood up and started reading the same Bible passage in many different languages, what if you had found you could understand them all, despite the diversity of sounds and the chaos of the situation? That would be a lot more like the Pentecost story: the chaos of the unexpected giving way to a surprising order and beauty that we never could have anticipated.
If you’re going to replace a tower that was built in error and hubris, first you have to tear it down. Only after the demolition can the new construction begin. So when the Holy Spirit goes to work, you can first expect not order, but chaos, as if the Tower of Babel had come crashing down and etymology were working in reverse. Ever since that Day of Pentecost when many languages were heard and understood, the Holy Spirit has thrilled to be at work in the wreckage of our lives. She shatters our carefully constructed expectations and categories.
For we humans do have a knack for categorizing each other, starting from a place of fear, in order to divide ourselves. For instance, there would be no racism if we humans hadn’t invented race. Some then say, “Well then, let’s never talk about anyone’s race again!” Ah, but this approach only helps the cause of the powerful ones who benefit from the racism that continues. Once we’ve invented something, we can’t make it go away by ignoring it.
But we can take what we have created and celebrate it. We can use it to unite rather than to divide. It used to be that we thought diversity was something to be feared. But the Holy Spirit is at work in us, and as we deepen our understanding, we find God to be at work in all people, all relationships, all languages. The whole earth will never again have one language and the same words. But we can most certainly learn each other’s languages—and the more the better!
The Tower of Babel gives us a story of frightening uniformity: all people are presumed to be the same, so the expectations of everyone’s lives are clear—no deviation from the norm. This kind of uniformity can indeed bring order from chaos. It can build tall towers, and it can go on to build empires. But it does so only by squelching resistance and eliminating human freedom. Theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote, “A human unity without the vision of God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity. And it will finally be ‘in vain.’”
God sees that this uniformity is dangerous and puts a stop to it by establishing and sanctifying diversity, giving us the gift of many different tongues and cultures and tastes and needs. Our variety prompts us to separate and scatter. But that’s not the end. God’s plan is much bigger than that.
Once you come to understand the sweep of salvation history as expressed in the Bible, you can see plainly the urge to celebrate diversity, the wonder of unexpected grace, the surprise of love around even the darkest corner. Familiarity with the story helps us come to see the journey of faith as learning to walk the way of love. The way of love moves from uniformity to scattering, from scattering to gathering, and from gathering to unity—but never again to uniformity. This is the biggest, longest-term consequence of Christ’s death and resurrection, and it’s patterned after death and resurrection. We never get to go back to the way things used to be, but only forward into new wonders and joys.
Pentecost is also known as the birthday of the Church, for we celebrate God’s action in sparking the re-gathering of God’s diverse people into a unity that is never uniform. The Church has a mission. But what is the mission of the Church? Take a moment and open The Book of Common Prayer to page 855. Did you know we have a catechism in there, an outline of Christian belief as expressed in the Episcopal Church? It’s not a firm list of dogmas so much as it’s a springboard for conversation in situations in which we seek to understand the Holy Spirit at work. Now—at the top of page 855, read with me: “What is the mission of the Church?”
The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
How does the Church pursue its mission?
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
That’s what we’re all here for. That’s the spark that was ignited on the Day of Pentecost. And if you have been baptized, that’s when you were deputized to help make this work happen!
But let’s be clear: the Church is not itself the Kingdom of God. It is only the first hint of it. We cannot build the Kingdom of God. That’s God’s work, and the best we can do is help with it. So in those times when the Church doesn’t look like the Kingdom, that only means our work of reconciliation isn’t finished yet.
In fact, I would say that the work of the Church is to work itself into irrelevance—to reveal the Kingdom of God to the world until God sees the Kingdom to completion and there’s no longer any distinction between the two. And to stress it yet again, the end goal is unity without uniformity. The end goal is that diverse people who speak different languages—both literally and metaphorically—will come to understand one another as children of God and love one another and respect one another’s dignity. I believe the Holy Spirit is going about this work outside of the Church as well, and even outside of the scope of religion. Wherever you find people seeking love over fear, they are engaged in the same project we are about—just in a different language.
The Christian life is the Way of Love, and we ourselves decide, as diverse individuals, how we can best walk it from day to day. During Lent and the first part of Easter season, four groups of Good Shepherd folks met to learn about Christian practices in a format called The Way of Love. Over the course of nine Sunday mornings, the groups considered seven different categories of practices with one-word headers. As we walk the Way of Love, God invites us to Turn—Learn—Pray—Worship—Bless—Go—Rest. These seven basic actions can take many different forms, and our Way of Love groups worked together to imagine how each of us can develop a variety of Christian practices into a Rule of Life. A Rule of Life is a tool that regularizes all our practices, so that we come to our own unique way of walking the Way of Love. During the announcements today, two Way of Love participants will share the Rules of Life they have developed for themselves.
Out of our Way of Love groups came a strong desire to spend more time at Good Shepherd meeting in small groups, intentionally setting aside time to be together with a regular cohort. Expect to hear more about this in the coming months—about ways that we can meet in small groups together and walk the Way of Love.
But today, celebrate! The Holy Spirit has been turned loose to demolish our carefully constructed towers and categories and to surprise us with fresh insight. She inspires us to love, even when love is hard. She urges us toward humility, joy, and an overflowing abundance of love. Now, with God’s Holy Spirit among us, we can all go out and set the world on fire, clearing the brush to make an open plain—a plain where we will build not a tower, but a table big enough to seat everyone in the world. Rejoice, for the table is richly laid. Alleluia!
 Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 100